During the past few weeks we have heard and read a great deal about Syndicalism. A few months ago hardly any one in the United Kingdom knew so much as the word; to those who knew the word, it represented something vague, extravagant, foreign, aloof, unlikely to touch us here. But now we are told by every newspaper that the country is dangerously in the grip of Syndicalism. It is difficult for the man of average plain intelligence to believe that the whole world of labor has adopted a new principle and a new method, and set it in tremendous operation suddenly, without preparation, without discovery, even unconsciously to themselves.

It is unreasonable, and it is certainly an erroneous idea. True, we have had a strike of an unprecedented character and magnitude. But a strike, even a general strike, is not Syndicalism, though, as Demosthenes says, some should burst themselves in affirming it. We propose in the present article to say what Syndicalism is, what its aims are, and in what way it hopes to attain those aims, writing from the Syndicalist point of view, and stating their real fundamental ideas.

The word Syndicalism was originated in France, and was derived from syndicat, the French name for a trade union. Literally it means Unionism, but became the term for the revolutionary economic movement which contended that social revolution must come through the direct action of the labor unions. Socialists and Syndicalists alike look forward to the abolition of the present capitalist system, but while Socialists seek to bring it about by political action, by parliamentary measures accumulating reforms, Syndicalists claim that it is an incredible hope that a Socialist party can ever obtain an effective majority in any parliament in any country. Socialism has done a great work as an educative and propagandist force. During the past fifty years it has leavened the whole lump of social ideas; yet, in spite of the many changes in capitalistic society, the legal relations between the capitalist and the worker have not undergone any vital essential change, which shows that the social environment within which an economic organism operates may be reformed without affecting the economic organism. A revolutionary process must be an inner process, a series of changes in the balance of the several parts of the economic organism, and cannot be an outer process—a result of a series of legislative influences and friendly transactions between the various parliamentary parties that represent the various classes of the nation. Syndicalism has replaced the mechanical conception of capturing the powers of government through parliamentary action by the dynamic conception of a class struggle through which the workers are to free themselves by transferring the functions and the life of the State to their own unions.

Syndicalists point out that the belief of the working-classes in an all-powerful political party that will automatically realize for them their ideals has demoralized them in so far as they found it unnecessary to make individual efforts for progress, and so confined all their revolutionary activities to—voting. This fetishism prejudiced their economic action, through fear lest their political purposes should be endangered; and, on the other hand, where the Socialist political parties gained influence, they compromised their revolutionary aims for small advantages. In short, Socialist political action cannot realize the social revolution, while by claiming that it can, and so holding back the revolutionary energies of the workers, it limits their economic movement. Syndicalism transfers all problems of social evolution from the political to the economic field, and assigns to Socialist political action its sphere in obtaining the common advantages of democracy, constitutional and cultural reforms, conditions that may facilitate the organization of the workers.

Having got so far, the Syndicalist theorists considered deeply the means by which they must carry out their plans for arriving at supremacy; what part violence can be called on to play in proletarian movements, general strikes as creative of proletarian energies, the organization of Syndicalist society. All these theories and discussions were academic; they helped to clarify, to establish principles, but could not further the Syndicalist movement in any real way. Syndicalism, as a doctrine, has now practically exhausted and solved its problems, and its fundamental conclusion is that the revolutionary energies of the working-class are to be worked out in their economic movement and through their own functions as workers.

Then Syndicalism made its great practical mistake, imagining that when it had worked out this principle and proved it theoretically to the working-classes, the working-classes, perceiving and accepting its truth, would at once become the ideal type of revolutionist as visualized by the Syndicalist, and be capable of realizing the new social order. Essentially the same mistake as was made by the Socialist parliamentarians when they declared that if working-men would only send a Socialistic majority to parliament, Socialism could be realized at once.

The Syndicalist theorists themselves perceived their mistake, and most of them turned their attention to other problems. But the practical Syndicalists not only continued their original work—out of which had sprung all the theories—but found their ideas clarified and settled as the result of the working of the theories. What they felt to be true has become, through knowledge, a solid, practical standpoint, and more than ever they are assured that Syndicalism is substantially a practical method: it lives and moves and has its essence in action. They look for nothing from the past, and intend resolutely to possess the future.

Syndicalism is not, then, an artificial movement created by a group of French and Italian theorists and agitators. As a theory it is the expression of working-class experiences in the political and economic fields; while, as a practical movement, it is the inevitable response of the working-classes to the development of the industrial structure of society. The best proof of this lies in the fact that in different countries groups of workers have worked out a line of action which has all the characteristic features of Syndicalism, though they adopt the name only when it is attached to their method by their opponents, or when they discover that their independent theories and practice correspond with the Italian and French theories.

In America labor organizations found that, against trusts, and against technical developments that reduce the significance of individual trades and skill in industries, there is but one way to fight, namely, by merging the trade unions into industrial unions embracing all the workers in all the skilled or unskilled occupations within a particular industry. The same thing is taking place in England, in some of her colonies, and wherever modern industrial evolution is at work. Now the industrial union organized to make the working-class better fitted to secure advantages from powerful capitalist corporations becomes the soil in which a revolutionary ideology inevitably springs up and thrives. The attention of the worker in the mass turns to the problem of organization, and inasmuch as the immediate aim of the organization is to secure greater control over the processes of production in their particular industry, the mass of the workers—or, at any rate, in the beginning the more alert, more educated, and foreseeing minority—becomes interested in the technical problem of production.

Through this technical interest the workers become more efficient, and their social and class consciousness grows. They want to work more and more effectively—not, however, for the capitalist, or for the State, but for the collective body of the workers. And it is here that the Syndicalists find their creed—that the best and simplest way of creating a new social order is by the organizations preparing for taking over their industries and carrying them on for the benefit of the collectivity. Each individual having a trade, each individual being a producer, the speediest and most organic way is to organize him as such and give him a social aim. When the workers have attained the highest technical skill and efficiency, when they are able and ready actually to run their industries, ready with their perfected organization and their skilled professional individuality, they will then take them over. Strikes, general strikes, and other forms of resistance are not the whole of Syndicalism; they are only means towards an end; and, above all, they teach the workers their power or their weakness, they are moulding their intellectual and moral energies, they make them perceive new issues and new human relations, new problems and their solutions.

This process goes on in different countries quite independently of any theory. The great Post Office strikes in France are in everybody’s memory. They have been denounced as barbarous manifestations of irresponsible egotism paralyzing the life of the nation wantonly and ruthlessly. But if we consider these strikes from the inside, we find a new point of view—the point of view of the Syndicalized Post Office workers.

The employés were tired of being directed and dominated by a political department administered by politicians who had no comprehension of the work of the Post Office clerk, nor indeed of work in general. They proposed, then, to deal with technical questions themselves, and to eliminate the present political element in administration, which offended their practical sense and their intimate and profound sentiments of right. They struggled for the autonomy and freedom of labor.

The guarantee that this autonomy of labor will operate for the community lies in the fact that a demand for it advanced by the Post Office employés sprang from a professional sense of their effective worth jealously fostered, from a clear conception of economic relations, from a realization of the public interests and of the responsibilities connected with an industry of such national importance as the Post Office Service.[1]

For some years past the General Association of Post Office Employés of France has turned its attention to professional problems connected with its own service and administration. It has denounced the State as incompetent to run the department, and has occupied itself with technical reforms, with the improvement of the service, and has tried to awaken the professional consciousness of the employés, to give them a high conception of their work, and a dignity—the dignity of the conscious producer.

Stimulated in this way, the employés have searched out faults in the complex mechanism of the service, have tried to neutralize mistakes due to the incompetent administration, to save money and labor—in a word, they have safeguarded the interests of the public. Many reforms have been originated by quite obscure clerks of humble rank, and through the professional group action of the employés many changes have been made to the public advantage.

The effective value of the organization suggests that without the officials now retained at high salaries the department could work better and cheaper, animated by a new life, enriched by the competency and devotion of the employés, whose work their Association succeeded in co-ordinating.[2]

The strike of the Post Office employés, then, was only an incident in their genuinely Syndicalist training. It was more than an expression of their suffering under inefficient administration, it was the expression of their consciousness of ability to carry on the whole postal service through their own organization more efficiently in their own and the public interest.

It is wholly wrong to say, as so many newspapers and magazines have lately declared, that Syndicalism is a crude method by which the workers try to capture an industry by reducing their own efficiency and output, by irritation strikes, by sabotage &c., until the industry becomes unprofitable to the management and must come to terms. These means have always been applied by labor organizations for obtaining concessions; Syndicalists also apply them under certain conditions. They are merely incidents in the struggle for victory over the capitalist class. But they do not explain or represent the fundamental characteristics and ideal of the Syndicalist movement, the collective efforts of the workers to raise the level of their competency in reference to their industries, and to use this increased competency for the benefit of the collectivity.

Syndicalists perceive the tremendous difficulty of social progress. They know it could make no substantial difference to have a new social order with the human material of the present order unchanged. Accordingly they endeavor to combine the creation of the new society with the creation of the new man. They have a vision of a future in which social discipline will be evolved by the nature of the labor to be accomplished; of a future in which labor will be free and at the same time organized under an inner logical discipline voluntarily accepted. They firmly believe that the realization of such a future depends entirely upon their personal qualities and efforts, and upon their moral value. And so they consciously seek out ways of increasing the technical capacities of the individual worker, knowing that through this he will desire a profound change in the organization of the industries in particular and society in general. They are, therefore, intent on teaching the young workers all the details of their profession, in order to make them capable of taking the organization of production into their own hands.

This has been very well expressed by G. Beaubois, a clerk in the French Post Office: Syndicalists must take care of the technical, moral, and social perfection of the young workers; they must guide and advise them, and awaken in them the spirit of observation, the qualities of initiative and energy. They must efface the painful and repugnant features that accompany labor under the present organization of production. The problem of progress lies in saving work from monotony and routine, from fatality and servitude. In other words, the problem of progress lies in freeing work and ennobling it. To initiate every worker into the progress of industry and the marvels of human activity, to show them the usefulness of their efforts and the grandeur of their work—this is to give them a passion, a soul, a conscience.

The labor organizations should become paternal homes for the young workers, protecting them from all temptations and leading them into life. A revolution does not improvise itself, and it is necessary that in the industrial groups new ideas, new collective sentiments, should be born, and should develop and prepare the social change.

This process of preparing the creation of the new society by the creation of new men and new industrial organisms with new functions—functions essentially different from those existing—is the basic tendency of theoretical and practical Syndicalism.

And this tendency is such an organic product of certain conditions prepared by industrial progress and by a living social morality called forth in the working-class by Socialist educative propaganda, that it imposes itself upon organizations that do not propose to call themselves Syndicalists, or that in reality have not even been touched by Syndicalist theories.

The greatest practical experiment in Syndicalism has been carried on now for some ten years by the Industrial Union of the Bottle Blowers of Italy, which had always been a so-called safe Socialist organization, adhering firmly to the Socialist theory of realizing a Socialist society by political action.

In Italy the bottle-making industry now lies between the factories of the Industrial Union and the Bottle Trust. The beginning was in a strike against one glass manufacturer who refused a series of demands from the Bottle Blowers’ Union, to which all workers in the bottle industry, whatever their trade, belong. After a year of struggle, the Union made a tremendous effort, raised a fund among its own members, many of them contributing all their money, selling all their belongings, even their beds, and with this fund they set up a factory, in which part of their comrades on strike found work. This factory was an immediate success, and a new furnace was planned to give work to yet more members of the Union on strike or out of employment. Without help from mechanics or masons, the men built the second furnace themselves in forty-seven days, a surprising feat considering that in normal circumstances it would have meant six months’ uninterrupted work. All the strikers found work in their own factory, the manufacturer was beaten and was finally absorbed by the Trust, which granted all the demands of the Union for its members, comprising practically all the glass-blowers employed in Italy.

But now the co-operative factory became a competitor with the Trust, and the Trust, seeking to crush it before it should become too firmly established, quarrelled with the Union, which led to a series of strikes. Nearly every strike meant the starting of a new cooperative factory, so that the Trust found its commercial activities curtailed and its profits diminished. Then the Trust tried to beat them by underselling, and by persuading the banks to refuse them credit. This method failed, for the better wares and the technical superiority of the co-operative factories gained a decisive victory. Each factory produced a special bottle of such excellent quality that though its prices were higher than those of the Trust, it could dispose of its whole output in advance.

At the present moment the Union has about 3,500 members, of whom the Trust employs 1,000 and the co-operative factories 2,500. There are a very few bottle-blowers not in the union, mostly foreigners. Every member of the Union is a shareholder, even those working in factories of the Trust.

Two factors have especially contributed to the success of the workers. One is the technical efficiency of the glass-blowers, their professional consciousness brought out in their effort to create collectively something new and positive. The other factor is their moral solidarity evolved by their Socialist training. Their Socialist education imbued the glass-workers with that high sense of solidarity which calls for some productive work and is not satisfied with mere indulging in sentiments, while their professional and industrial organization gave a definite form to their work and made them capable of realizing their productive aim. In their struggle they forgot their immediate interests and worked with all their energy for the liberation of their whole class from capitalism. They were dominated by a social vision, by a greater sense of human fraternity. A wonderful discipline prevails in their factories, a discipline that guarantees a continuous process of production and fires each worker to work at his best. In all the factories of this Union there is not a single overseer, and the technical and business managers are all bottle-blowers.

The moral solidarity created by the struggle awakened the conscience of workers in all directions. For example, glass-blowers the world over are heavy drinkers, but these men gave up drinking. Their life being filled with an ideal, a social purpose, and a continuous concentration on various problems, they find pleasure in it, and have no need to drink for solace.

They renounced their legitimate dividends, accepting the same wages as their comrades working for capitalist concerns, and turned over all the net profits of their co-operative to mutual-aid funds; and, as we said before, they gave up, and are still giving up when necessary, their last farthing toward the establishment or strengthening of their movement.

They have no intention whatever of becoming capitalists. They want to free themselves from capitalism and to set an example to other workers. With the profits of their enterprise they help the Socialist and labor movements, they provide schools for their own children and for the children of other workers, and were actually among the first to adopt the now famous Montessori system of kindergarten education. They built workmen’s houses, providing better homes, better nucleuses for the new social life.

Their factories are model factories in the industry; they are the best equipped in the world with labor-saving machinery, labor-protecting devices, hygienic arrangements, and they are prepared to introduce any new technical or financial method in their industry. Experts from all countries come to them to learn and profit by their experience. And by their example and by their closer union with the workers employed in all the other branches of the glass industry, they are in a fair way to raise to their own level a group of about ten thousand workers.

In short, they have improved the conditions of their own life and work, making both healthier and less irksome, accomplishing their higher duty to themselves, since a revolutionary working class must elevate its material level in order to make itself fit for fulfilling its social mission.

This movement, then, represents the new fact of Syndicalism in operation. An industrial union of workers has found within itself all the necessary elements for resistance against organized capital and all the necessary factors for progressing towards the positive and thorough conquest of the means of production.

The Bottle Blowers’ Industrial Union of Italy has discovered the material, technical, commercial, and moral capacities for getting hold, within a comparatively short period of time, of the biggest share of the Italian bottle industry, and sooner or later it will undoubtedly run the whole industry through its co-operatives.

The force which these workers have substituted for individual and associated capitalist initiative, namely, the collective effort and efficiency of their organized class, foreshadows to Syndicalists the future, for they declare that just this professional consciousness and moral training is the force which will lead to the future social order and on which it will depend, and, as it is in the present, so will it be in the future a source of unceasing economic progress and continuously growing moral improvement.

In agriculture, the basic industry of Italy, the same factors are at work on a much larger scale. Here some 200,000 acres have passed into the hands of the farm laborers organized into unions and co-operative societies. Through industrial organizations and Socialist education the agricultural labors acquired the power, the technical capacity, and the moral energies to fight for, obtain, and run their industry. They do not, however, own their lands themselves, but lease them from the landowners.

The landowners were confronted, and are still confronted, by a situation from which there seems no other peaceful way out than the leasing of the fields to the co-operative societies of the laborers. The laborers, having through their unions obtained in many localities practically a monopoly of farm labor, struck for higher wages and shorter working hours. The landowners, on the one hand, claimed that the profits from farming would not allow this increase in the cost of production; and the unions, on the other hand, insisted, and indeed proved with exact figures, that the granting of their demands would not necessarily impair the profits of the landowners. After many prolonged strikes and boycotts the contending parties finally came to the following settlement:

The unions of the laborers legally organized themselves into co-operative societies, and leased the farms from the landowners on the same terms that had been usually agreed between land-owners and the tenant farmers. These co-operatives, now leasing a couple of hundred thousand acres, have not only satisfied the landowners by prompt payment of rent, but have so improved the land that the landlords, after the expiration of the first leases with the co-operatives, have usually been glad to renew them.

Space does not allow to go into the details of the working of this system. Its chief features are as follows: The landowners are protected from strikes; they are getting their former average income, and at the same time their farms are being technically improved—therefore, growing in value. The workers have a greater control over their own industry, and so their desires are satisfied. They are responsible for the management of the farms, but at the same time the results of their efforts to produce more efficiently are entirely their own.

They are also in a position to regulate employment, since they are not looking for dividends; they can and actually do eliminate the former brutal sacrificing of the unemployed, of the old and less fit workers, by organizing work so as to give employment to all of the union, and in many cases even to the non-union workers. Thus, under this system, a high principle of solidarity is realized through the moral force of collective control necessarily obtaining in an organization with so wide a scope, the workers become alive to the problems of industry and hence become more efficient, and they educate themselves to active solidarity by obliging themselves to work more intensively in the interest of their fellow-workers. Many Italian municipalities and charitable institutions have leased their farms to the co-operative societies of laborers, preferring them to the tenant speculators. A great number of absentee landlords in Sicily have been for generations robbed and their land ruined by the same tenant speculators, and hence have willingly turned over their land to the organized peasants.

The importance of this new and essentially Syndicalist departure in farming has been recognized by the Italian Government as a valuable asset in the economy of the nation. A Bill is before the Italian Parliament considering the leasing of the Italian State lands, amounting to several million acres, to these co-operative societies. The same Bill proposes the establishment of a co-operative bank that, by giving credit to the land laborers on favorable terms, will encourage their collective organizations.

There are several other important organizations in Italy that are developing on similar lines; for instance, reclamation work is carried out on a large scale for municipalities and the State by co-operative societies of laborers who have fitted themselves technically and morally to accomplish the most difficult work at less cost and in less time than the capitalist contractors, and are therefore given the preference by the State and the municipal authorities.

One of the greatest Syndicalist associations in the world is the Industrial Union of Italian Railwaymen, including practically all the employés of the State railways except the higher officials. Still far from being a perfect organization, faced with many internal problems that must be solved before it realizes its whole power, it is even now a strong and intelligent factor in the life of the country. We cannot in the present article attempt more than a very slight indication of its complex activity and the important part it plays in the Italy of to-day.

By its method of organizing according to the technical nature of each man’s occupation, while the problems of the whole service are kept before the mind of every member and his opinion and vote called for on each, the men are educated to a keen interest in everything that concerns the whole work of the railways. That they have arrived at a considerable degree of success is proved by the fact that conscious of their increased collective efficiency and power, they set before themselves the revolutionary aim—The Railways for the Railwaymen.

This is not simply a vague Syndicalist war-cry, but is inspired by the actual conditions of the railway system. The State in 1905 took over the railways at a great price, proposing to give better and cheaper service, but the technical incompetence of the bureaucratic administration has demoralized the system and brought about a growing yearly deficit in the returns. Innumerable sinecures and well-paid offices were established; but the State neglected the technical side, and with increased financial burden came greater confusion in the working.

On the other hand, through their organization the workers have been eagerly learning details of every kind of work necessary for the proper effective managing of the railways, and now they seek to get control over their administration, so as to manage the railways for the nation. They propose to do this as a co-operative society, which would be made up of the members of their union.

The administration would dispense with bureaucratic control. The highest positions would be occupied by men chosen for their knowledge, initiative, and capacity by the workers themselves, while at present they are held by men who have political influence or have automatically risen to them. Being free from political ties, the co-operative railways could suppress the thousands of clerical jobs, and increase the number of productive workers, securing a safer, prompter, cheaper service.

The workers would receive a certain minimum wage, and would share in the net profits as well. Necessary capital would be obtained from profits, from shares subscribed for by the men themselves, and from issues of preference shares. The State would retain in some simple form the right of supervising the administration without directly interfering with details. It would establish the tariffs and regulate the necessary service of trains, and would, if necessary, contribute part of the cost of alterations if imposed.

So severe is the breakdown of the State railway system in Italy, so clearly have the railway men shown their professional keenness and capacity, that even conservative economists of world-wide reputation and experts such as Vilfredo Pareto have declared that the one practical solution of the trouble is, since private ownership is a public nuisance, and State ownership a veritable disaster, to entrust the State railways to the co-operative enterprise of the organized railwaymen.

The State itself made a step in this direction with the Railway Law of April 13th, 1911, which recognizes the union of the railroad-men by giving to every trade within its organization a voice, through an elected representative, in the technical development of the railways, and in the discussion of all administrative problems connected with them. The Government thus proved its recognition of the fact that it cannot run the railway industry efficiently without the direct co-operation and advice of the employés, or without considering the lessons of their daily practical experiences.

The gist of Syndicalist theories and action lies in their dogma, The social revolution is a practical problem. It is a practical problem, and a vast practical work, which changes men and institutions, succeeding in proportion as men and institutions change nationally and internationally. For though some organizations of workers may be more advanced than others, though some may even begin to put their powers in motion, the Syndicalists claim that the movement will realize itself completely only when it becomes international and universal.

Accordingly, they endeavor to make their work international. They have a practical programme: first, to secure national industrial unionism, the amalgamations of trade unions into industrial bodies capable of taking action at all points of an industry; secondly, to bring into closer relations the different industrial organizations of every country, and at the same time to bring about an international affiliation and co-operation.

Then there are the open fights, through which, whether they win or lose, the workers learn their powers and their shortcomings, and how to extend or counteract them.

Out of all this intense continuous activity comes the formulation of the Syndicalist theory of social progress: that the world of the future is for the workers, and that to prepare for this future world the workers must organize themselves into harmonious, compact, professionally conscious unions, individually increasing their technical knowledge and efficiency, collectively fitting themselves for the successful management of their industries. They maintain that the problems of social evolution reduce themselves to problems of organization; that progress does not operate independently of man’s will, but is created by virtue of his conscious desires and organized action. According to the Syndicalist, progress towards his ideal society will only be realized by the organized will of the working-class.

Odon Por and F. M. Atkinson

The English Review.

  1. [1] G. Beaubois, L’Organisation Syndicaliste du Service des Postes, in the Mouvement Socialiste, April 1909.

  2. [2] Monbrunaud: La Grève des Postes et sa portée sociale.